Women of the Reformation: Katie Luther

When we look back on the Reformation – the great era of human history that changed our view of God and the gospel (as well as greatly influencing or modern world), most of the attention is on the men of the Reformation – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Tyndale, Cranmer, and others.  That is all good and well because they were great leaders in their own right.  But hardly a whisper is made about some of the great women.

I started doing some digging and didn’t have to go very far.  I was shocked how many there were, and how little I knew about them.  There’s women like Katharina Schutz Zell (1498-1562) of Strasbourg, who developed women’s ministries and published a book of Psalms for women to sing.  She also took a lead role in organizing relief for 150 men who were exiled from their towns for their faith, and she wrote scriptural encouragements to the wives and children who were left behind.  What an invaluable woman to have around at that time!

There was also Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572) who provided shelter for the Huguenots during the French Wars of religion, at great risk.  Her children were kidnapped and her life was continually threatened.  But that didn’t stop this fearless woman.  Known as “the little princess” she believed that like Esther, God had put her in a position to defend his people.

And then there’s Anna Bullinger (1504-1564) of Switzerland.  Along with raising 11 children, she welcomed vast numbers of Protestants and refugees into her home.  When she wasn’t busy with her own household, she visited the poor of Zürich, giving out food, clothes, money when she could.

But the woman I want to focus on today is Katherine van Bora, who became Luther’s wife.  I think it’s because her story is so lovely.  And I think she has a certain spark in her that appeals to me.  Here’s her story:

Ruins of the Nimbschen Cloister, from which Katherine von Bora fled

In the early hours one Easter morning, 12 runaway nuns climbed into empty fish barrels and were smuggled out of their convent.  At the receiving end was a renegade monk they had written to, imploring him to rescue them so they could leave the convent, marry and one day become mothers.  Their “hero” in waiting was none other than Martin Luther (you can already see where this is going).

So how did this all come about?  Well, after the Diet of Worms and Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech, things were taking an interesting turn.  Monks in Wittenberg were renouncing their vows of celibacy (a smart move) and marrying nuns who were leaving their cloisters (an even smarter move).  Luther’s tracts about the gospel were making their way into convents and Luther was giving nuns advice on how they might escape (this by the way, was not only a violation of the law but regarded as a capital offense).

Luther felt it was his responsibility to find husbands and homes for these women.  They were theologically minded.  They were literate.  And after coming to faith in Christ they became strong, committed Christians.  Martin started pairing them up and he got everyone married off except for Katherine.  Katherine had found someone she thought suitable, but he did not want her.  He said she was too feisty.

Some were suggesting he himself should marry Katherine, but Luther expected he would die a heretic any day and that would be unfair to her.  But then, much to everyone’s surprise he agreed to marry Katherine because his marriage “would please his father, rile the pope, make the angels laugh and the devils weep.” They wedded on June 13, 1524.  She was twenty-six; he was forty-two.

Though initially a marriage of convenience, they grew to love each other very deeply and affectionately.  Thirteen years after their marriage, Martin would say of Katherine, “If I should lose my Katie I would not take another wife though I were offered a queen.”

One of the things that appeals to me with Katie was her sense of humour.  On one occasion, Martin had been in a foul and grumpy mood.  Nothing seemed to be going right for him, so he would stomp around the house.  Katie did not say anything.  Instead, she dressed up in black like a grieving widow, put a veil over her head and just sat there.  He came through the door and asked, “What is wrong with you.  What are you doing, woman?”  She replied, “Oh, dear, it is just terrible.  The Lord in Heaven is dead.”  He asked what she was talking about that the Lord in Heaven was dead.  “God is not dead!”  Katie replied, “Oh really, well the way you have been acting I thought that is what had happened.”  She soon had Martin laughing.  She had a way of bringing him out of his moods.

The Black Cloister, where the Luther’s lived

On another occasion he was in one of these moods and locked himself in his office.  Guests were soon to arrive wanting to talk with him.  He couldn’t be doing that.  So, Katie hires a workman from the village to come and take the door off the hinges.  When the door comes off Martin is sitting there on one side and Katie and the kids on the other.  I found that brilliant – the kind of thing my wife would do!

Katie raised six of her own children.  She also cared for six other children who were orphans of Luther’s family – nieces and nephews and a great-nephew.  She worked hard in running the home, ministering to the guests, taking food to the homeless and you’ll love this one – she even brewed her own beer.  Every good German wife needs to know how to brew beer!  And people loved it.

Katherine often sat with Martin as he wrote his letters.  We know that because they include comments about what she was doing while he was writing.  I wonder what interaction and input she had in his writings – I expect her influence often came through.

There are lots of written records regarding the theological discussions Martin had with people (they were recorded and published as Luther’s “Table Talk”.  You can access them online here).  On many occasions, Katie would join in these discussions and also debate.  I can just imagine, knowing what I know about them both, the banter that passed back and forth between them.  It must have been quite entertaining for their guests.

Katie drove wagons, looked after their fields and gardens, raised cattle, rented horses, sold linen, helped edit his writings, and was often up by 4am and working to 9pm.  She worked so incredibly hard Martin had to frequently urge her to slow down and relax.  The longer they were married, the more tenderly her spoke to her.  “I am a happy husband,” he wrote “and may God continue to send me happiness, from that most gracious woman, my best of wives.”

If you read Luther’s earlier teaching on marriage he portrays it as a necessary evil to stave off sexual temptation.  But that greatly changed as the years went on and his love for Katie grew.  Later he said, “The greatest gift of grace a man can have is a pious, God-fearing, home-loving wife, whom he can trust with all his goods, body, and life itself, as well as having her as the mother of his children.”

I think that about says it all.

Katie now even has her own Facebook page.  You can find out all kinds of other things about here: https://www.facebook.com/KatieLutherProject/

 

You can also learn more interesting things about Martin and Katie in the age of the Reformation herehttp://www.corndancer.com/fritze/reformation2/refmaton2_home.html

 

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Sola Gratia (our only method)

One of the crucial questions of the Middle Ages was how were the benefits of Christ’s death applied to the sinner who needed to be saved.  Over the course of a few centuries, the Catholic Church had appropriated that power to itself, through sacraments that the church administered to its members.  Those sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  The Catholic Church Catechism states that,

“The sacraments of the Catholic Church instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, are efficacious signs of grace perceptible to the senses. Through them divine life is bestowed upon us.”[1]

In other words, the Church becomes the custodian of grace and has the authority to mediate that grace to God’s people through the sacraments.  But even then, a person’s salvation is not secure.  There is additional work to be done.  This is where the real problem lay.

Pelagius, 5th Century AD

In the 5th century AD there was a teacher in Rome called Pelagius who taught that man has the ability to seek God and fulfil the commands of God apart from the grace of God.  In other words, a person is capable by his own free will to choose God or do good without the aid of divine intervention.  He could do that because his nature is basically good.

Well, the Roman Catholic theologians wouldn’t go that far.  They took on what is known as a semi-Pelagius view, saying that man’s will, though injured by the fall, is still free and cooperates with God’s grace in salvation.  It’s like a 50-50 deal.  We make the first move toward God and then He steps in and ‘helps us along.’  They even had a phrase – “God will not deny his grace to those who do their best” (the modern-day equivalent of “God helps those who help themselves”).

Against this the Reformers cried, “No, salvation is entirely by grace and grace alone.”  Luther was very strong on this.  In his book, The Bondage of the Will (which he claimed later in life to be his most important work), he argues that man’s will is bound in sin making him unable to respond to the gospel, and that it requires a special work of God’s grace to bring his salvation about.  This doesn’t mean that the will is inactive.  It means that wherever it is active in faith and obedience, God is the One who causes it to be so.  This is the essence of Sola Gratia – it is God’s grace working alone in our salvation.

This is no small issue here. For Luther, the issue of man’s bondage to sin was the root issue of the Reformation — and the lynchpin of Protestantism.  The Catholic Church agreed.  Irwin Lutzer says, “The Roman Catholic Church regarded he freedom of the will as the central issue in Luther’s split with the church.”

Perhaps you might grasp the difference between the two with this illustration.  Picture a man drowning in the water and God throws him a rope.  Whether he grabs the rope or not is his own choice.  Even after he grabs it, he must, by his own efforts hang on to it.  That’s Rome’s position on God’s grace (and, when it comes down to it, the position of many evangelical churches today).  Luther would say the man is not only drowning; he’s unconscious.  He cannot respond because he is unable to respond.  God must intervene and “awaken” his will so that he believes.

So what does Scripture teach?  That is what really matters.  In 2 Timothy 1 Paul reminds Timothy what the heart of the gospel is:

“He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:9–10)

Now I want you to look at this closely with me.

  • Who, according to Paul is the one who does the saving in this passage? Do we save ourselves or does God save us?  God save us.
  • Was this based on anything we have done? No, it was based solely on God’s purpose and grace.
  • When was this saving grace given to us?  It was given before time began.
  • How was this grace given to us? Was it bestowed on us when we took sacraments or took steps to obey God?  No, it was given in and through the person of Christ.

Paul is teaching us in this passage that salvation, from start to finish, is all of grace.  It’s grace at the start, grace to the end, and grace in the middle.  The moment we add human works or human effort to the mix, it ceases to be grace.  As Paul puts it in the book of Romans,

“Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” (Romans 11:6)

You say, “Well then what do I bring to the table of my salvation?  I must bring something?”  Yes, you do – your sin.  We bring our sin and God brings his grace.  We say, “Lord, nothing in my hands I bring, only to the cross I cling.”  And God says, “That’s all that is required.  You are saved by my grace and my grace alone.”

Do you find that difficult?  I’m sure you do.  Because we don’t like hearing those kinds of things.  It goes against our nature.  We all like to think there is some good in us.  But face to face with God – alone, just you and him, are you not (truly) good.  In fact, according to the Bible there is not one iota of good in you.

“As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10–12)

This is God’s assessment of the entire human race.  And unless we truly grasp this, unless we understand our true spiritual condition prior to salvation, we will never understand what grace really is.  Luther said,

“Man must completely despair of himself in order to become fit for the grace of Christ. The proper preparation for the grace and goodness of Christ is the awareness that I need them.”

I think all this is summed up so well in the great hymn from Charles Wesley – “And Can it Be?”  Here are two stanzas I really love:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’ eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

For Wesley, the message of “Grace Alone” was a prison escape.  It’s a message of liberation, not captivity.  It causes people to flourish and thrive.  It’s a message about God reaching down to poor, helpless creatures who have no ability in of themselves to make themselves better – truly better, and saying “Let me work in you.  My grace can not only save you, it can utterly transform you.”  And he does.

God offers you that freedom in His Son.  All that is needed is to surrender yourself completely and utterly to him.  He will cleanse you.  He will renew you.  And he will create the will in you to do what you cannot do yourself.

His grace is sufficient.  His grace, alone.

[1] Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.224

Note: this post is based on a series preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

Getting your head around Luther’s insults

With all the attention lately on the 500 years celebrating the Reformation (see my earlier post on this here) I thought it might be good to uncover one of the more unusual (and indeed humourous) aspects of this great event.  If you are familiar with any of the history of the Reformation and in particular, the writings of Martin Luther, you would have at some time come across Luther’s insults.  It can’t be helped – they’re everywhere.  Here are a few samples:

“You are the worst rascal of all the rascals on earth!”
From Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 341 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41

“Perhaps you like to hear yourself talk, as the stork its own chattering.”
Against the Heavenly Prophets from Vol. 40 of Luther’s Works.

“Take care, you evil and wrathful spirits. God may ordain that in swallowing you may choke to death.”
From Against the Heavenly Prophets, pg. 111 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 40

“All Christians should be on guard against your antichristian poison.”
Defense and Explanation of All the Articles from Vol. 32 of Luther’s Works

So what’s the deal?  Surely he didn’t say (as in write) these things publicly.  He would never get away with it.  Well actually he did, and so did many of his opponents.

In order to appreciate Luther’s insults (and yes, they can be appreciated) you need to understand the context and culture in which they were spoken.[1]  Luther was simply a product of his time.  INSULTING was a common rhetorical device used with polemical[2] literature in the 16th century.  Luther was defending pure doctrine against impure doctrine and trying to guide the church of his day back to the gospel and the  “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  His insults however, went a little too far sometimes and bordered on the unseemly.  Fortunately his wife Katherine was more than capable of handling this.  When his language was too foul, she would say, “Oh come now, that’s too raw” (can’t you just picture it?).

Katie Luther

When asked to retract his works at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther spoke openly about what he had written and the people he spoke strongly against.  Concerning his insults, Luther said,

I have written a third sort of book against some private and (as they say) distinguished individuals – those, namely, who strive to preserve the Roman tyranny and to destroy the godliness taught by me.  Against these I confess I have been more violent than my religion or profession demands.  But then, I do not set myself up as a saint; neither am I disputing about my life, but about the teaching of Christ.  It is not proper for me to retract these works, because by this retraction it would again happen that tyranny and godlessness would, with my patronage, rule and rage among the people of God more violently than ever before.

It is clear from this explanation that Luther was using the common rhetorical device of insults (he terms them “violence”) to defend pure doctrine against tyranny and godlessness.  For all you pro-Reformation people out there, you might say “Go Luther!”  For those of you are who are not so “pro” (or perhaps, just neutral), relax and exhale.  Or better still – laugh along with us.

So what would this kind of “insulting” look like if it was in action today?  Well Adam4d.com (subtitled – “A curiously Christian webcomic) came up with a suggestion.  But before I elaborate further, if the above content bothered you then you probably better stop reading.

Posing as Luther, they (I assume there’s more than one culprit involved here) have created a fanciful twitter feed belonging to the infamous Joel Osteen (if you don’t know who he is you are most blessed).  Osteen preaches a man-centered prosperity gospel that tells people God wants them to be happy, healthy and wealthy.  His messages always have a positive, feel-good vibe that people just love and I can’t stand.  He’s rich and famous and also happens to be, in my lowly view, a heretic.

Here’s some samples from the supposed twitter feed:

Ouch!  Imagine seeing that come up on your twitter feed!  Or how about this one:

Synonyms for “fawner”: leech, parasite, groveller, greaser.  You get the point.

Yeah – sock it to him Luther.  Here’s another:

Say what???   Yep – I had the same reaction.  So I looked up pusillanimous and found this: “lacking courage or resolution; cowardly; faint-hearted; timid” (you can check out the pronunciation here.)  I’d love to know what it was in German, and why on earth the translators didn’t pick an easier word.  Here’s one more for the road:

If you’re keen for more, you can head to the real deal “Luther Insulter” webpage and get insulted yourself, as much as you want.  Simply click on the picture below.  Have fun!

[1] I give credit to Tyler Rasmussen’s explanation on his “Luther Insults Explained” (http://ergofabulous.org/luther/insults-explained.php)

[2] Polemic: a controversial argument, as one against some opinion, doctrine, etc.

Sola Scriptura

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  His actions set in motion a movement that changed the entire course of history.  The Reformation was, at its heart, a recovery of the Gospel.  Out of the Reformation came 5 essential truths that became the foundation for what the church stands for today.  They are known as the “5 Solas” – 5 Latin phrases that summarize what the church stands for:

  1. Sola Scripture (Scripture alone)
  2. Sola Gratia (Grace alone)
  3. Sola Fide (Faith alone)
  4. Solus Christus (Christ alone)
  5. Sola Deo Gloria (God’s glory alone)

To mark this great historical occasion, we are going to examine each of these and see how they apply to us today.

Sola Scriptura (our only foundation)

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.” – Martin Luther

Sola Scriptura means just that – Scripture alone.  This does not mean that the instructions, counsel, advice or experiences of other people are not helpful.  This does not mean that the truth in the Scriptures is equally clear to all people.  Nor does it mean we don’t need the guiding, teaching and empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit (I’ll be getting to that soon).   What it does mean is that the Scriptures are our only ultimate, reliable and infallible authority for all Christian faith and practice.

Psalm 119:89 says, “Lord, your word is forever; it is firmed fixed in heaven.”

Firmly fixed – sure, settled, immovable, unchangeable, reliable, dependable, trustworthy and true.

So why was this so important to the early Reformers?  Because in their day the ultimate authority was not the Bible.  It was the church.  Picture in your mind a 3-legged stool.  Label one of the legs “Scripture,” label the second leg “Tradition,” and label the third leg “Magisterium” (I’ll explain that one in a minute).  You now have a picture of the authority structure of the Roman Catholic Church.  Now think of marble column or staying with the analogy, a one-legged stool.  Label that one pillar or leg “Scripture.”  You now have a mental picture of the authority structure of Protestant Churches.

In the Roman Catholic Church, Scripture is only one authority.  Tradition has equal authority.  And so does the offices of the Pope and the Bishops (the Magisterium).  And the Pope, along with the Bishops have the authority to interpret the meaning of both the Scripture and Church Tradition (which come in really handy when it comes to making a change).  The Reformers protested against this saying, “No, we have only one authority: Scripture.”

Perhaps the most convincing text on this would be 2 Timothy 3:16-17

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

The word “inspired” is the Greek term theopnustos.  It means “to breath out.”  All Scripture is literally “breathed out by God.”  And that becomes even more significant when you understand the word for breath and Spirit are the same – the Greek word pneuma.  The Word of God comes from the Spirit of God.  That’s why we should never divorce the Spirit from the Word.  We should never pursue an experience of the Spirit apart from the Word.  Nor should we try to understand and apply the Word without any interaction with or dependence on, the Spirit.  The two work hand-in-hand.

Now everything we need for the Christian life is found in the Word so Paul is able to say, “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (v.17).  It doesn’t spell out how to be a Christian astrophysicist or a Christian accountant.  But it points us to Jesus, shows us all the riches that are in Christ, it brings faith in Him which unites us to Jesus and equips us to bear fruit in all sorts of ways.

  • It teaches us the truth (by showing us what is right)
  • It rebukes us of sin and error (by showing when we are wrong)
  • It corrects our behavior (by showing us how to get right)
  • It trains us for righteousness (by showing us how to stay right)

No one else can do that for you.  I can’t do that for you.  Your spouse can’t do that for you.  The church can’t do that for you.  But the Word of God can do that for you.  It is able.  It has authority.  Because it is given by God Himself.

The Word of God is our authority.  We don’t have any other authority.  We listen and pay heed to what God in his Word tells us –

  • Not what tradition tells us
  • Not what human opinion tells us
  • Now what human wisdom and human reasoning tells us
  • Not what the culture we live in tells us
  • Not what our experience tells us

That is why this doctrine – Sola Scriptura is so important for us today.  Because we will always be tempted to move away from Scripture or to go beyond Scripture.  There will always be something out there that is more attractive, more alluring, more rewarding, more tantalizing, or more exciting.  Who wants to sit and do bible study when there are so many other things on offer?  But will those other things reveal to you the mind and will of God like his Word will?

Will they expose sin and error in your life?

Will they draw you closer to Christ?

Do they have the power to transform you?

Can they feed you spiritually so that you leave with your soul full?

Can they give you personal advice and counsel on just about any subject?

Can they comfort you in times of distress?

Can they help lift your eyes to God?

Can they give you wisdom that is needed for counseling others?

During the Reformation, the main contestant for authority in the church was tradition.  Tradition, along with the sacraments and rituals and relics trumped Scripture.  Today I believe it is experience.  If a Christian experiences it, then it is valid.  It is of God.  And the Bible is interpreted in light of the experience, not the experience in light of what the Bible says.  Don’t get me wrong here: it is a good thing to seek personal encounters with God.  It is a good thing to sense God’s presence and to have such a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit that you sense his leading and prompting in any given situation.  But just remember: experiences can be faulty.  Emotions are not always trustworthy.  Subjective impressions and so-called “leadings” must always be tested.  And the only sure test we have is the Word of God.

Because it never changes.  It always remains true.  It is always trustworthy.  It will never put you wrong.  And that is why it is our only authority.

Sola Scriptura.  Never forget it.  Lay hold of it each and every day.

 

The Reformation: why it still matters

I want to take you back in time.  The year is 1517.  The place is Wittenberg, a small, sleepy town in East Germany.  A young Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther makes his from his monastery and walks across town to the Castle Church.  Under his arm is a wad of papers.  He walks up to the front of the church, takes out a hammer and nails his papers to the door.

Luther’s intention was not to start a Reformation.  He had no intention of breaking with the Catholic Church.  His thesis was simply an invitation to a public debate.  It was a 16th century version of a blog post inviting online discussion.  However, before the Bishops had time to respond Luther’s students swiped it and had it printed on the newly invented Gutenberg printing press.  It soon made its way through Germany and the rest of Europe.  What began as a small protest erupted into a firestorm that swept the world.

So what was it exactly that got Luther so worked up?   Luther was frustrated.  He had tolerated a number of things up to this point.  He had tolerated the religious hierarchy in the church – a system of Popes and Bishops and Priests that ruled over the people with an iron fist.  He had tolerated the services and the sacraments which every good Catholic was obliged to participate in.  But what he could not tolerate was the actions of a certain Dominican Friar by the name of John Tetzel a few days beforehand.  That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Tetzel was going from town to town selling indulgences.  An indulgence was a payment one could make to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment (penance) for certain sins.  People feared that if one of their sins went unnoticed or unconfessed, they would spend extra time in purgatory before reaching heaven.  Or worse, they wind up in hell for failing to repent.  The purchase of an indulgence would fix that.   Well Pope Leo saw this as a great way of making revenue so he opened it up for those who were living and dead.  Now you could buy an indulgence for Uncle Semas who hadn’t been a very good Catholic and you could get him out of purgatory.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse – it did.  The Pope wanted to finish building St. Peter’s cathedral.  To do this, he authorized a special indulgence that would provide forgiveness for all sin.  This could be bought for your dead relatives in purgatory.  This was what Tetzel was selling.

Tetzel would come rolling into town in a grand wagon.  Trumpets would blow and banners would unfurl.  A table would be set up in the town square.  On one side there was a pile of parchments and on the other a large chest.  Then Tetzel would cry out:

Johann Tetzel selling indulgences

Listen now, God and Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and your departed loved ones departed… Visit the most holy cross erected before you and ever imploring you… Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in the flames? Will you delay the promised glory? [1]

Then he added with a rhythm in his voice,

“Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”

This was religious exploitation to the extreme.  But the people didn’t know any better.  They were completely in the dark.  They had no bibles, no theological instruction, nor did they have theological books.  They were utterly dependent on the priests.  But the priests were just as ignorant.  When John Hooper was first appointed bishop of Gloucester in England in 1551, he reported out of 311 of the clergy, 168 were unable to repeat the 10 commandments, 31 couldn’t even state in what part of Scripture they came from, 40 could not tell where the Lord’s Prayer was written and 40 couldn’t even say who authored it!

This was the state of things prior to the Reformation.  J.C. Ryle gives an avid description of the time.  He says the Roman Catholic Church was…

“an organized system of Virgin Mary worship, pilgrimages, almsgiving, formalism, ceremonialism, processions, prostrations, bowings, crossings, fastings, confessions, absolutions, Masses, penances, and blind obedience to the priests.  It was a grand higgledy-piggledy of ignorance and idolatry, and service done to an unknown God by deputy.  The only practical result was that the priests took the people’s money and undertook to unsure their salvation, and the people flattered themselves that the more they gave to the priests, the more sure they were going to heaven.”

When Luther nailed his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg door, he was challenging the power base of a very powerful religious system.  And they did not like it.  Luther was quickly denounced as a man preaching “dangerous doctrines.”  In the year 1521 he was called to the Diet (or assembly) of Worms (pronounced Verms) – a small town on the Rhine river in Germany, where he was called upon to recant his heresies.  Luther responded with this, now famous declaration:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Luther at the Diet of Worms 1521

With those words, Luther set his course.  What followed is what we know as the Great Reformation.  A number of strong and very courageous men followed Luther – William Tyndale in England, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, John Calvin in France, and John Knox in Scotland.  They were not perfect men by any stretch of the imagination.  They made their mistakes.  But they were God’s men for the day, to lead the church back to the simplicity and purity of the gospel.

But does it really matter today?

There are some who say the Reformation has been and gone – it doesn’t matter anymore.  It’s something that happened in the past so let’s leave it in the past.  Well, this part of the past matters.  Here’s three reasons why:

1. The Reformation matters because it had world-changing effects
The Reformation gave us the Bible – now freely available in our own language.  The reformation also gave us religious freedom, liberty of conscience, and separation of church and state.  As a result of the Reformation Christians have made more positive changes on earth than any other force or movement in history.  More schools and universities have been started by Christians than any other religion, nation or group.  It was Christian Reformers that succeeded in bringing about the abolition of slavery, cannibalism, child sacrifice, as well as the degrading treatment of women.  None of these things would have occurred, if it were not for the Reformation.

 2. The Reformation matters because it brought about the recovery of the gospel
The glorious gospel, which teaches that sinners can be made righteous – not by works but by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was rediscovered.  And the result was new life.  The result was true regeneration of men and women, who were brought from darkness to light, from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.

3. The Reformation matters because it serves as a warning to the church today
It serves as a warning of what can happen when authority is abused and truth is ignored.  It serves as a warning of when God’s grace is peddled for profit, power and personal gain.  And it serves as a warning when the gospel becomes eclipsed and overshadowed by the methods, programs, and teachings of men.

If the gospel matters to you, if the glory of God and purity of the church matters to you, if religious freedom and liberty of conscience matters to you, if women’s rights and the abolition of slavery and education for all people – regardless of age or gender or race matters to you, then you cannot and should not remain ignorant of the Reformation.

Because these are the very things that the Reformers fought and in some cases, died for.

Addendum: just for the sheer pleasure of it, check out this video (a trailer for Ligonier Ministries 2017 National Conference).  It’s a powerful visual of the world-changing impact of Luther’s actions that day October 31, 1517.

[1] Roland Bainton, Here I stand, p.59

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

Peace in life’s storms

Shock news.  We’ve all experienced it haven’t we?  Your boss tells you your job is coming to an end and your position will soon be redundant.  Your doctor rings and tells you that the blood tests have come back from the lab.  It doesn’t look good and you need to come in right away.  Your daughter comes into the room with tears streaming down her face – the family cat has just been run over in the middle of the road.

Shock news.  It causes your brain to freeze so can’t think straight.  You open your mouth to say something, but nothing comes out.

It’s about how the disciples felt when Jesus told them he was about to leave them.  They had been with him, nearly every day for the past three years.  They walked the dusty roads with him, ate with him, and prayed with him.  They had given up their livelihoods to follow him.  Now he says he’s leaving.  They are devastated.  They are in shock.  This can’t be happening.  He can’t mean what he just said.  He can’t leave us.

Jesus loves these men.  He knows that leaving them will be for their own good, because then he can send the Holy Spirit to them.  But they can’t deal with any of that now.  They are too overwhelmed with grief.  Jesus knows this and so he provides them with words of assurance.  John records those words for us in John 16:33

“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)

These are powerful words.  They are words that will strengthen you when you are weak.   They are words that will get you through the most difficult of circumstances and most pressing trials.

Let’s have a closer look at them and see what they have to say to us today.

When Jesus uses the term “the world” (kosmos), he is not referring to the physical planet we stand on but the system of evil that dominates and governs humanity.  And this system is controlled and ordered by Satan.  Where ever there is evil at work, where ever there is human misery, where ever there is violence and abuse you know that Satan and his demons are at work behind the scenes.

That is the world you and I live in.  Jesus says it is going to cause you suffering.  Some translations have the word “tribulation.”  Others have the word “trouble.”  The word means pressure, affliction, distress – caused either by difficult circumstances or difficult people (or both!).  Jesus say you’re literally going to be squeezed, you’re going to be pressured; you’re going to be crushed living in a sinful, fallen, and satanicly controlled world.

We all need to be reminded of this don’t we?  Sometimes we have wrong expectations.  We think that because we belong to Jesus, we should live trouble-free lives.  Everything should go well for us.  That’s just not the case.  Paul had to remind the Thessalonians about this.  He writes to them and says,

“so that no one will be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. In fact, when we were with you, we told you in advance that we were going to experience affliction, and as you know, it happened.” (1 Thess 3:3–4)

But here’s the good news.  Jesus says to the disciples, “Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”  Some bibles have “Take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Well that, all on its own, has the potential to sound a bit hollow, doesn’t it?  It sounds a lot like the words from well-meaning people who want to give us some encouragement when we are in the midst of difficulty:

“Hang in there – it will all come right”
“I know you have what it takes to get through this”
“You’re strong – you’ll make it”  

But will it really come right?  Do I really have what it takes to get through?  Am I really strong enough to make it?  Can you guarantee these things?  No, they can’t because neither you nor I have any control over our circumstances.

However, when Jesus says, “Be courageous”, it’s a whole different issue.

“Be courageous” or “Take heart” is one word in the Greek and it’s in the imperative – it’s a command.  And get this: every time it is used it is spoken by Jesus.  No one else says this anywhere in the New Testament.  Only Jesus.

 “Have courage” Jesus said to the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof by his friends, “your sins are forgiven” (Matt 9:2).  And then Jesus heals the man on the spot.  He gets up, picks up his mat and walks out.

“Have courage, daughter” Jesus said to the woman who had an issue with blood, “your faith has saved you” (Matt 9:22).  And Matthew tells us that she was made well from that moment.

And then there’s the scene where the disciples are in a boat in the midst of a storm and they are fear for their lives, and Jesus comes to them walking on the water.  The disciples are terrified, thinking it was a ghost and Jesus says to them, “Have courage! It is I.”  And he got into the boat and suddenly the storm ceased (Mark 6:51).

Do you see the pattern here?  In every account whenever Jesus uttered the words “Have courage”, it was followed by divine action.  He did something.  When Jesus utters the words “Take courage” to you, he’s not giving you a pep talk.  He’s not just being nice.  He says it because he has power to change things for you.  He has authority over whatever it is that is causing trouble or distress in your life.

So, what is it that you are going through right now, that you need to hear these words?

  • Are you experiencing distress because of the direction one of your children is taking?  Are you worried about that?  Is that keeping you awake at night?   Jesus says, “Take courage – I have authority over that.  I have that in control.”
  • Is there trouble at work?  Are you under pressure there?  Are the expectations placed on you too much for you to bear?  Jesus says, “Take courage – I have authority over that as well.”
  • Do you have concerns for your health?  Are you waiting on results of a scan?  You are wondering what the future holds.  Jesus says, “Take courage – I have authority over that.  I have authority over life and I have authority over death.  This situation you are concerned about – it’s in my hands.”

A few weeks ago, I shared a story about a friend of mine called Carl (you can read the full story here).  Carl contracted melanoma which spread into other parts of his body.  By the time the doctors found it, it was too late.  It has gone into his kidneys and his spleen.  Carl was told he had only three weeks to live.  That’s when he called me.

Carl had no fear of dying.  He knew where he was going.  He knew he was in the hands of Jesus and the Lord in his timing, had chosen to take him own.  That wasn’t his concern.  His concern was for his friends and family members who weren’t Christians.  So, while his head was still clear and he could think straight he was calling them one by one and pleading with them to believe the gospel and put their trust in Jesus.

Tell me, where does a person get strength like that – to face death with such courage and hope?   I’ll tell you where: from the One who promises to be with us in every trial and every difficulty and even in the valley of the shadow of death.

“Take Courage”, he says, “I have overcome the world.  I have overcome sin and death.  And I have overcome Satan.  I have authority over all things – even your life.  So, don’t fear.  Don’t be anxious.  There is someone who loves you.  There is someone who has come down from heaven in order to redeem you.  And there is some who has conquered sin and death and has your future securely in his hand.”

Knowing these things, believing these things, is what gives the disciple true and lasting peace.

PostScript: On August 30th, Carl went peacefully to his eternal home, surrounded by his family in Auckland, NZ.

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The Disciples Peace.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

 

SERVE-tember Sunday

If you visited our church a couple of weeks ago, you would have experienced a Sunday with a difference.  Instead of seeing people gathering to sing and listen to a sermon, you would have seen them scattering in two’s and three’s in cars, on bikes and on foot – some with food, some with shovels and spades and others with guitars.  Sound a little odd?  I guess it does, unless you understand the bigger picture.

We started out this year with the launch of our new mission: God’s grace, to us, for the world.  Let me break that down briefly.  God’s grace is the transforming power of God which comes by way of the gospel.  And it’s all about Jesus.  We make a big deal about that each and every week.  The to us part describes the community of people who the gospel creates – the church of God which is being built up through the ministry of the Word, mutual service and exercise of our spiritual gifts.  For the world describes the mission or task of the church.  This wonderful, saving grace is not to be hoarded, but shared with those who don’t know Jesus.

Most churches are strong on the first two.  But they tend to be weak with the third.  That is because by default all their energies are directed internally, to their own needs – so much so that they forget about the people who live around them.  These are the very ones God is concerned about!  And he wants us to share the good news with them.

So how do you mobilize a church of over 250 people to be more outward-focused?  Well that’s a mission in itself!  And there’s no magic bullet for it.  We are trialling a few new things here at Grace.  One of things we trialled was canning a morning service and sending everyone out to bless and serve our community.  This sounds great on paper but when you consider our age range – 80 years down to 8 weeks, we were going to have to be creative.  So, this is what we did:

  • We contacted the Tasman District Council to ask if we could send teams onto the cycle ways to pick up rubbish and pass out gift packages of water bottles and muesli bars to passing cyclists and walkers. They were amazed we’d do this and even supplied us with the rubbish bags
  • We ordered a bunch of high-viz vests with our church logo imprinted on the back for the work crews to wear
  • We bought a few hundred sausages for cooking on BBQ’s on the cycle way and local skatepark
  • We organized a muffin-making brigade to bake hundreds of home-made muffins
  • We ordered 500 colourful gospel tracts to go with the muffins and snack bags
  • We contacted the local Retirement homes and asked if we could bring in a team to sing to and bless the elderly
  • We also contacted the Nelson Hospital and Police Station and asked if we could come in to thank their workers for their contribution to the community
  • We mapped out streets in Richmond city to take gift packages to those who are working on Sunday (Gas stations, auto parts stores, liquor stores, motel staff etc)
  • We appointed a prayer team which would stay on base and pray for the entire operation and for door to be opened

When people arrived on Sunday morning they were directed to a board with sign-up sheets where they selected which area they wanted to serve in.  Then they met with their team to discuss a plan on how they would go about it.  After packaging up containers of muffins, tracks and snack packs, they headed off into the community.

The plan was simple: bless people!  Give a simple explanation of what we are doing (as well as why we are doing it) and give them some morning treats.  We didn’t know how the whole thing would go – whether it would fly or it would flunk.  And we didn’t know what conversations or opportunities might open up.  We simply put the whole thing to the Lord in prayer and asked HIM to do with it as He willed.

After we were done, we all met back at the church for lunch and to share some stories.  Here are a few snippets:

One small team visited a Campervan park close to our church.  When they approached one couple a woman asked, “Do you give away anything else than muffins – like prayer?” (I’m serious – that’s exactly what she said).  It had been a rough week for her.  Her husband has a heart condition and her son is going through a separation.  She had asked God to send her someone that day.  He did.  Rowena and Anisha were delighted to pray for her.

Rowena and Anisha retelling the Campervan park story with Francelle

Vern washing down the house

Ken, one of elders, took a small team to assist a woman in our community called Adelle.  During a visit with her doctor earlier that week, she shared how she was feeling overwhelmed – even her garden had gone to pieces.  Her doctor wrote down a phone number on a piece of paper and said, “If you want help with your garden, call this number.”  It was the number of our church.  Perfect timing!  Ken’s team made short work of it, washing down the outside of her house, pulling out some unwanted weeds, and giving her an instant vege garden.  They left with her beaming, and sending an awesome thank you message later that week.

Adelle getting her new vege garden

The staff at the hospital really appreciated the muffins and words of encouragement.  One of the nurses in A&E pulled out her wallet, thinking we were selling them.  How surprised she was to find out they were gifts!

I went with a couple of guys and hit the gas stations and auto parts stores.  We sure surprised a few people, often having to repeat ourselves because they didn’t believe they were hearing it the first time.  I think that goes to show how little people are appreciated in general – in whatever they do.

Jason blessing a Sunday morning worker at a local dairy

The folks at the retirement homes were really touched by those who went to sing and give small bouquets of flowers to the ladies.  Tears ran down cheeks as worship songs were sung and words of blessing were given.

Note: not everyone had a wonderful “God” moment and nor did many get into deep spiritual conversations.  But some did.  And that was our expectation.  We were simply vessels in God’s hands.  We depended on him to use us as he saw fit.  Some doors opened; some didn’t.  But everyone we encountered was blessed, in some way or another.

Would we do it again?  Absolutely!  What we sacrificed by losing a Sunday service (which was small) we gained in forging teamwork and a missionary spirit.  The faint-hearted were strengthened, unity was built, and people were hugely encouraged.  And those who stayed away that morning – well, they just missed out on seeing God at work – big time.

I’ll leave you with a video clip that shows some of the highlights of the morning (thanks William for your hard work on this):